Living in American offers our children the opportunity to meet, interact with and befriend a variety of people with different appearances and capabilities. To encourage their relationships to grow and thrive, we should teach our kids to respect and celebrate these differences. We may eat certain foods, wear different clothes, speak differently and observe unique spiritual customs, but we are all people wishing to lead happy, healthy, productive lives together.
What Children Observe
As early as age two, children notice differences in gender and race. By age two-and-a-half, children learn to label boys and girls. They are also learning colors, and they begin applying these words to skin color as well.
Children at about three-years-old notice physical disabilities. Most parents have experienced an awkward moment when a son or daughter, regardless of age, has stared at someone who is different.
You may have seen a preschooler pounding out someone’s color, size, clothing or other features. Although such situations are uncomfortable, curiosity and observation are natural, and it’s up to you to help guide your kids in how to process what they notice and respond positively.
Helping Children Understand Differences
* Start with things, not people. A simple idea is to introduce the concept of difference to very small children through objects. A fun activity for parents and children can take place right in the grocery store. Maureen Costello, Director of the Teaching Tolerance program (tolerance.org), encourages parents to go through the store aisles and find items that are specifically from other cultures. This type of hands-on activity helps to demonstrate that variety is normal.
* Use age-appropriate language so kids can understand what you are explaining. Instead of including extensive details about cultural history or medical causes, just give enough information that your child can handle at the time. Your comments can be simple: “This person needs a special chair to move around.” “He wears a yarmulke to respect his religion.” As you introduce the topic, respect and understanding are likely to follow.
* Bring other cultures into your children’s lives. Children’s books are great resources for helping kids develop their own identities and understand that others can be different from them. There are many great books available at your local library to introduce this topic to your children, including: Dear Zoo, Elmer, It’s Okay To Be Different and Whoever You Are (all on diversity); Don’t Call Me Special (on disabilities) and The Skin You Live In (on acceptance).
Some online retailers and educational stores have age-appropriate board or card games to help teach children about various cultures and diversity.
* Use daily situations to teach your children. Some parents tend to avoid children’s questions or change the subject quickly. It’s better to answer honestly. Treat the situation naturally. If kids ask about a person’s clothing or how they speak, answer honestly and with factual information. The curiosity of children creates teachable moments. We tend to gravitate toward people like us. Take the opportunity to teach children about kids who are different from them, and give your children the confidence to ask questions about others.
* Buy a globe or world map. Educate children about world events, and show them on the map where such events are taking place. This will allow for more questions, promote discussion and create more teachable moments for your family.
* Be proactive. Talk about diversity before it comes up. When your children have new classmates with different ethnicities, they will notice. Discuss the subject openly before they bring it up. Talk matter-of-factly about how people are from other countries, have different skin colors and eat different foods. It’s better for you to bring up the situation before your children do at a time that may be uncomfortable for everyone. It takes purposeful commitment to step outside of ourselves and expose our families to something different.
* Act as a role model for your kids. The tips listed above can promote cultural awareness, but nothing is as powerful as the role model you are for your children. Your kids will imitate your behavior and attitudes of other adults who are influential in their lives — so be sure you are respectful and culturally sensitive. If necessary, ask other adults in your children’s lives to avoid making derogatory comments about other cultures, or limit your children’s time with less tolerant people. If you are accepting and tolerant, your kids will be as well.
Children observe the world around them and ask questions to better understand what they see and hear. We can help them understand similarities and differences in people by providing brief, objective responses to their questions. They can be better prepared to feel good about themselves and others. We are living in a very diverse world, and it’s up to us to teach kids to value all people.
Ann Lambert, MSN, CPNP-BC, is an Associate Clinical Professor at Auburn University School of Nursing and works as a Primary Care PNP with Pediatric Associates in Alexander City, AL.